The Nature of Violence: Classic Peckinpah

STRAW DOGS (1971) U.K.  118 mins.  Dir. Sam Peckinpah  STARRING: Dustin Hoffman, Susan George, Peter Vaughan, Jim Norton, and David Warner

Dustin Hoffman as David Sumner in "Straw Dogs"

Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 controversial classic Straw Dogs could be called a horror film. Yes, the horror being what a man is capable of when pushed passed his limits. It is a movie that could be written off as pure exploitation. After all, Sam Peckinpah revolutionized cinema in the 1960s with graphic violence in his films, such as the acclaimed revisionist western The Wild Bunch. His movies reflect the themes of masculinity expressed through retaliation with violence. Straw Dogs is no exception. Some call it pornography. This is nothing but a reasonable judgment considering the explicit sexual violence present in the film. And yet, one would have to wonder about the story behind a film that was banned in the United Kingdom for thirty years.

The plot concerns a timid, American mathematician David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman in arguably his best performance) and his attractive, young wife Amy (Susan George) as they move into a home in the countryside in her native England. David is continuously harassed by the locals, and he refuses to take any action. After his wife is raped (in a controversial scene) the film changes course. The disappearance of a teenage girl and the hunt for a child murderer sets off a chain of events that push David over the edge, and take him on a vengeful killing spree.

Dustin Hoffman, left, and Susan George, right, in "Straw Dogs"

This sounds like a very ugly movie, and it is. Straw Dogs is an unforgiving, unflinching look at the violent impulses within oneself. Its characters are unsympathetic. Even the protagonist, by the end of the film, is reduced to a brute himself. In many ways, the film is uncertain of exactly what it wants to achieve. There are no morals (typical of a Peckinpah picture). It is reminiscent of a western: a story of a man in a lawless land who must adapt to survive. The film takes no sides, there isn’t a right or wrong: each character pursues his or her own appetite, whether the circumstances are reasonable or not.

I came to this film expecting some fun, action-packed early 70s movie (this is Peckinpah after all). Boy, was I surprised. I found myself put off by a film that seemed pointless. It was without direction. The plot of the film went nowhere, and I felt strongly that Peckinpah wasn’t sure of what kind of movie he wanted to make. I felt like I had just seen a sick, stupid film. A week later, I rewatched Straw Dogs and I loved it. The performances were only better. The infamous rape scene (in which Susan George’s characters begins to enjoy the rape) bothered me as it hadn’t before. I suppose it had to do with not the betrayal of her husband, but with the ultimate surrender of herself to what she knew was inevitable. At the end of the film I was left unsettled at the sight of a bloodied Hoffman standing among a festival of corpses, smiling. “I Got em’ all.”

Susan George as Amy

Peckinpah seems to have quite an appetite for carnage, and he appears to have succeeded in making the ultimate “bad-ass movie”. But it wouldn’t quite be fair to judge a film on how disgusting or violent it is. We may be taken aback, but all that does is bring into further question what we have just seen. I don’t think Straw Dogs is an exploitation film. The dialogue is too rich and the character development is so deep. Bloody Sam clearly knows what he’s doing. Every shot is carefully planned. No car chases or gunfights are added for effect. Each action that takes place is relevant to the plot, in one way or another. In the climax, our hero willingly lets a small situation escalate to ridiculous lengths in order to prove himself a man. The bloodbath that would ensue could easily have been avoided. But then, we wouldn’t have a movie.

The ending scene of the film, my favorite in the whole picture, involves Hoffman and the (unbeknownst to him) child murderer Henry Niles he has hidden in his attic for the last thirty minutes of film. David Sumner has succeeded in defeating his intruders and proceeds to drive an injured Niles back into town.  As they drive down the dark, foggy road, Niles says, “I don’t know my way home.” David looks over at him and smiles. “It’s ok. I don’t either.”

So there it is. Straw Dogs is potentially a great film; of course it depends on how the viewer chooses to interpret it. It is a savage film, and that may be enough to limit its audience.

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Magic: A Terrifying Love Story

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Abracadabra, I sit on his knee.                                                                                                                                                                          Presto, change-o, and now he’s me!                                                                                                                                                                       Hocus Pocus, we take her to bed.                                                                                                                                                                        Magic is fun…we’re dead.

So said the malevolent ventriloquist dummy Fats in the now infamous TV spot that scared children across America and was eventually moved to primetime televison. Magic is a film about an up and coming performer, ventriloquist Corky Withers, (Anthony Hopkins) who runs away from fame in order to hide the fact that he has multiple personality disorder, and escapes to the Catskill Mts. and reunites with his high school sweetheart, ( the lovely Ann Margret as Peggy Ann Snow) but is destroyed by the wrath of his wicked, foul-mouthed dummy, that is “talking” to him. Director Richard Attenborough used the film to finance production on his acclaimed magnum-opus Gandhi (1982).

Just in time for the holiday season I’ve chosen a film that I believe is generally underappreciated, though adored by fans and regularly shown on AMC. It is also genuinely frightening, there is more than one scene where you aren’t quite sure what you’re seeing, the dummy talk, or Corky losing his mind. It is very interesting to sample the work of the great Anthony Hopkins, who does a great job, before his most famous role as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. But please, make that not the sole reason as to see this movie. At 107 minutes in length, its quite surprising to note the film feels very fast-paced, and for a good quarter of the film, its central actions occur at the lodging on Lake Melody. Fats is a fascinatingly funny dummy with a big mouth who quickly becomes very scary, and it is not often obvious to the viewer what is scarier, Fats the Dummy or Corky the unstable madman.

Peggy Ann Snow                                                                                                                                                                                                         Peggy Ann Snow,                                                                                                                                                                                                  please let me follow                                                                                                                                                                                                                         wherever you go…

Ann Margret and Burgess Meredith co-star with the same amount of intense realism, and involvement in what is going on. The last 10 minutes, especially the ending are very memorable and leave you thinking if not disturbed. Great performances, a great underrated picture in my opinion, I end this brief review on a note– watch it. After all…

“You’re not gonna get this opper-fuckin’-tunity tomorrow!”

Au Revoir les Enfants (1987)

chosen by Edouard Hill at Allan Gray’s Imagination

chosen by Edouard Hill at Allan Gray’s Imagination

Au Revoir Les Enfants really moved me. Thank  you,Ted,for selecting this film, because it is certainly the greatest movie yet seen on The Cineastes. It is also the most powerful film I’ve seen in a while. Watching Au Revoir Les Enfants is difficult to do. It is much the equivalent of watching Schindler’s List. The fact that it is somewhat based on the director’s own experiences at a Catholic boarding school, is what makes it all the more powerful. The phrase: Au Revoir Les Enfants or “Goodbye, Children” is the farewell between Pere Jean and the children, as he is taken away by Nazi officers. “Goodbye Children” in my mind, can possibly stand as a metaphor for the loss of innocence. As we follow young Julien Quentin we watch him on his journey through life, facing conflicts from the inside and out, and come the end, loses what he had left of his innocence, prior to meeting the ill-fated “Jean Bonnet”. Not only Julien Quentin, and our director Louis Malle, but all the schoolboys are stripped of their youth on that cold January morning. The hardest thing about it for me, is to know that those innocent boys were gassed upon arrival at Auschwitz. It is a gloomy picture, but one not to be forgotten (great performance by Gaspard Manesse). It is never fun to watch movies about the Holocaust. However, that may all change this week with the release of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds. And I’m not saying that is a good thing, either.

“Stop being so pious. There’s a war on, kid.”

What’s Up, Tiger Lily? (1966)

original dvd art

original dvd art

For his directorial debut, Woody Allen and co. took a series of Japanese spy film: Kokusai himitsu keisatsu: Kayaku no taru (国際秘密警察 火薬の樽: International Secret Police : A Barrel of Gunpowder) and Kokusai himitsu keisatsu: Kagi no kagi (国際秘密警察 鍵の鍵: International Secret Police: Key of Keys), and overdubbed the original soundtrack with original dialogue and changed the sequence of the two films to create “the definitive spy picture”. The result is a comedy about the misadventures of secret agent Phil Moskowitz: “a lovable rogue”, as he travels the globe in search the world’s best egg-salad recipe. As it may already be evident, this film relies on gags, puns, and asian stereotypes jokes  to succeed, and indeed it does. Perhaps the humor in this movie is tame, but it’s highly original and very enjoyable. What’s Up Tiger Lily? is a better film than the James Bond clone from which it is re-edited, and thus becomes a respectable movie in its own right. In addition, the film flaunts the folk rock formulations of The Lovin’ Spoonful.
The Interviewer: Woody, since the story is a bit difficult to follow, would you give the audience and myself a brief rundown on what’s gone on so far?
Woody Allen: [casually] No.
 GRADE: B 

The Cineastes No. 3

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Here comes trouble…..
       
   John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China is a comedy. Undoubtedly. It is also an escapist film, a monster movie, a chop-saki flick, a love story, and a tribute to the movie serials of the 1930s. Its a shame that this film gets slammed for it too. Within the context of a Carpenter film, there is always a social message. I feel that all of his movies are character studies, and that applies for Big Trouble as well. It is a very enjoyable and fun film to watch, and at the same time, it satisfies my craving for an intelligent movie. A good movie should speak to its audience. If a film is intelligent and can hold your attention for more than five minutes, than there is clearly something genuine to it. Big Trouble in Little China keeps you hooked for its entire 100 minutes. Kurt Russell is Jack Burton; a dumb, wisecracking trucker who finds himself wrapped up in a quest to rescue his friend’s fiancee from the ancient, evil magician Lo Pan, an in adventure 2,000 years in the making, set in modern day Chinatown, San Francisco. Jack soon finds himself dodging demons, warriors, and other terrors from the great beyond. It sounds like a nice pitch for a movie. That’s probably why it was made into a movie. Believe it or not, Big Trouble was originally conceived as a western. Either way, the film is notable for its outrageous script. It is intentionally ridiculous, attempting to spoof the old movie serials of the day. And it succeeds, in lampooning not only one specific genre, but a wide variety. The clever script relies on its set of characters. Dialogue is a key factor in the design of each character, and personalizes them. Take Jack Burton for example. He is the protagonist, and is represented as the hero, the star of the show. Yet his actual heroism is questionable. You’ll notice he never does anything very heroic in the picture, he’s always hiding in the background. John Carpenter is playing with the theme of masculinity, here. Kurt Russell has been used frequently in Carpenter’s films. Fours years before Big Trouble, Russell played Snake Plissken in Escape From New York. Plissken is the quintessential, macho hero. Coincidentally, Russell stars as Jack Burton several years later. Jack Burton and Snake Plissken are two opposite personalities; Plissken the hero, and Burton the fool. Kurt Russell is poking fun at the character he played prior to that. Jack Burton, as an individual character, is a shout out to all the masculine heroes of the cinema. Notice too how the roles of hero and sidekick (essentially the “dynamic duo) shift between Burton and Wang Chi. Jack is the hero, but Wang Chi is prepared and knows what’s going on.
” Are you ready Jack?”
The title ” Big Trouble in Little Chinais so for a reason. With “big trouble”, Carpenter is emphasizing the stupendous plot, and “little china”: the relatively small setting in which it takes place (Chinatown). Does that make sense? Just a little thought that occurred to me, that this film was made for a reason, not just to make millions. and it didn’t even make much money to begin with.
Big Trouble really is a character study, the strong cast bring a warmth to their characters and have the audience feeling there in the moment. Only a good number of movies can achieve that. It is in my opinion the most creative of Carpenter’s works. It is an innovation in escapist films, one of the best of the period. Period. Big Trouble in Little China is The Cineastes’ first blockbuster, and hopefully not the last. I feel we need to realize that great movies can be fun and enjoyable too. An outrageous comedy can at the same time be a masterpiece. Fans of the art film will most likely not enjoy this, and that is because they are traveling outside their comfort zone. But the cinema is a journey, where all doors must be open to fully understand it.
“No shit, Jack. No shit.”
“BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA”  (1986)
dir. John Carpenter   USA   99mins.    20th Century Fox
Starring: Kurt Russell, Kim Cattrall, Dennis Dun, James Hong,
Victor Wong, Kate Burton, and Donald Li
GRADE: B+
Chosen by Eugene Lee a.k.a. “Crap Monster” at YGG’Noise
              
    

The Cineastes #2

James Caan in "The Gambler" dir. Karel Reisz

James Caan in "The Gambler" dir. Karel Reisz

Previously published as  CINEASTES- The Gambler (1974) dir: Karel Reisz

For 10,000 they break your arms. For 20,000 they break your legs. Axel Freed owes 44,000.

Where to begin? I came to this film with low expectations; its this feeling, the two phrases: JAMES CAAN and 1974 do not register well with one’s idea of a good movie. However, this Dostoyevskian based thriller is highly intelligent and perhaps too much so for its own good. The Gambler is written by James Toback, produced by Winkler-Chartoff, and directed by Karel Reisz. In The Gambler we follow James Caan as Axel Freed, professor and playboy, whose quest to “extend the juice” is met with ill consequences, as he finds himself scrounging the streets of New York City and beyond to pay his debt: 44,000. Freed is a man of two personalities. He’s an English professor teaching the principles set down by Dostoyevsky, that in many ways mirror his gambling addiction. Freed’s compulsive attitudes leave him estranged from his loved ones, particularly Lauren Hutton; and family, threaten his career, yet he can’t take the easy way out and insists that’ll he will be fine. Freed describes his fascination for and tendency to provoke risk, how it satisfies him to live dangerously, as with most playboys attaining Freed’s outlook on life, they’ll play dangerously until they loose. Axel Freed is an addict, to gambling, as many of us are; we all have our addictions and desires. It is a clear morality tale where our hero wins but at a cost. I can see why my fellow “cineaste” chose this picture for the month of June, and I support their opinion that this a lost gem of the 1970s. Is it fair to say this film was ahead of its time? No, that’s not what I’m trying to say. Simply, 1971-1975 was a time where gutsy action-packed blockbusters drew in the most crowds. It was released to an audience that wasn’t interested. The public sought fun, exciting, inexpensive thrills, which clearly is not what The Gambler has to offer. It is fantastic and intelligent in its own right, and very under-appreciated, as is its riveting score; based on Symphony No.1 by Gustav Mahler and composed by Jerry Fielding. This film was a failure in the commercial market, perhaps in more reasons than just it’s contents alone. For one thing, the only advertisement I can find for it, is the original poster:   http://www.moviegoods.com/movie_poster/the_gambler_1974.htm

I do however believe that, had it been made now, despite the inevitable public cravings for action-packed trash, it would be received well by critics and audiences alike, and would maintain a much better reputation than this old relic does now.

The Doctor’s Diagnosis: *** out of 5 stars.